The Singapore haze – cleverness 1, wisdom 0

singapore haaze

So, here I am in Singapore. It hasn’t rained for over 5 weeks now. It’s hot! To make things worse the air has the subtle taste of acrid smoke. Going outside for more than 10 mins gives me a slight sore throat and headache. What’s the cause? It’s the ‘haze’, stupid! (As Bill Clinton didn’t say).

On first hearing, ‘haze’ sounds kind of pleasant. A summer haze conjures up sweet thoughts and images in my mind – maybe cos it rhymes with ‘lazy days’! But it does sound a bit euphemistic to me.

That said, ‘haze’ does seem to be a proper metereological term for pollution caused by small particles of dust, smoke, or other substances. This is, indeed, what it is that’s hanging over Singapore right now, creeping insidiously and virtually invisibly into every open window, open eye, into every precious child’s mouth and lungs. Not so sweet-sounding now, eh!

It comes from the burning of forests on the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra. Most of this precious rainforest is being burned down by companies involved in palm oil production. In the pursuit of maximum profit, they burn down forest because it is by far the cheapest way of clearing land. No need for heavy machinery, labourers, etc. The scale of this burning is large enough to pollute the air for hundreds of miles around! Local people are suffering greatly.

palm oil fires

Palm oil seems to be in almost everything these days. Go check out the ingredients listed on your cereals or biscuit packets. Apparently, it yields comparatively way more oil than other similar crops. But, the increasing (strongly manufactured) demand for the processed foods consumers crave around the world is driving palm oil producers to greater acts of violence against the natural world. Since we are part of and dependent on our ecosystem, we too are suffering the consequences.

Not even an island of commercial peace and prosperity like Singapore can escape these consequences. The toxic smoke of the ‘haze’ permeates the mouths, throats, and lungs of even the richest Singaporean (though, granted, the richest are most able to jet off out of town).

The response of the Singaporean government is predictable. Its focus is overwhelmingly technical – the provision of masks and the formulation of emergency plans. No one seems to be talking or thinking very much about the root causes of the haze, which I see as the logical consequence of global capitalism. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the formation worldwide of interlinked networks of production, finance, trade, logistics, and consumption leading to the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities on an unprecedented scale. In short, we now have a world market for almost everything. This is how the filthy smog of one industrial town or city (which still, of course, exist) is magnified to become the haze of an entire continental sub-region, and, of course, how we have begun to have planetary-scale effects on our environment.

Back in December, I visited an orangutan sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The organisation running the sanctuary did emphasise protecting the land the orangutans live in. However, just a fleeting mention was made of the reasons behind the devastation of their habitat. Linking terrible consequences to huge impersonal global structures of power and money is neither popular nor attractive. It’s not popular cos it’s not in the interests of those in political power or running the media to highlight them. They’re not attractive cos such meta-analyses don’t lend themselves to the more technical, micro-level policy strategies that charities and NGOs tend to (need to) employ. My buddy Neil Howard just wrote about this. The reality is, though, that sponsoring an orangutan just ain’t gonna fix it!

We can close our eyes to capitalism no longer. Its consequences are genocidal. A recent book by Gary Leech called ‘Capitalism: a structural genocide’ is brilliant here. Leech argues that, though there might not be any obvious identifiable mass-murdering dictator, it’s the structure of capitalism and its relation to humanity and nature that is genocidal. Capitalism is so profoundly entrenched into the foundations of our lives that the vast majority of us don’t really even see it. If the acrid haze became a permanent feature of our lives, would we see that any longer either after perhaps a generation? The forces and systems that fundamentally shape our lives can be, as the saying goes, hidden in plain view.

So, faced with this reality, what can we do? First, we need to make the invisible visible for ourselves – read, listen, learn; second, we mustn’t ignore or despair at what we do learn; third, we can find out about the actions people are taking in the area that interests us; and, fourth, we can take action ourselves. In this case, how about trying to boycott palm oil products and telling others about the consequences of the growing mass market for commodities that use palm oil? No demand = no production = no haze!

The amazing E F Schumacher famously said that ‘humanity is too clever to survive without wisdom’. Clearly, one obvious distinction between cleverness and wisdom can be identified in our relationship to nature. When we suppress, manipulate, exploit nature we sure are clever; when we listen to, observe, imitate, and live harmoniously with nature, we are wise.

At this very moment in my life, as I sit in my apartment in the sky, looking out at this concrete jungle, as the subtle but distinct smell of smoke infiltrates my body, I marvel at our cleverness, but mourn our lack of wisdom.

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